Book: Spook Country by William Gibson

Lots of atmosphere, not so much action

William Gibson
Spook Country
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-399-15430-0
371 pages

William Gibson is justly famous for his early books. Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive are remarkable books and they established (or re-established, depending on how your count) a genre. His more recent novels, and in particular this one, Spook Country, have been rather less ambitious. That doesn't make them bad, but I can't avoid a certain disappointment because I can't help but compare how I felt after reading the older books (thrilled and amazed) with how I felt after reading Spook Country (reasonably well entertained).

The book contains some interesting characters. There's a man who seems to have some quasi-official connection to the U. S. government. He has sort-of taken prisoner an Ativan addict. He needs him for his ability to translate semi-Cyrillic text messages. There's an artist whose "installations" can be seen only by means of virtual-reality helmets and there's the reclusive technical person who makes that work. There's a former rock-and-roller turned journalist who is kind-of working for a magazine that sort-of exists and is funded by the Belgian ad-man Hubertus Bigend (who also appears in Mr Gibson's previous novel, Pattern Recognition). And there is a Chinese-Cuban family of spies who were once associated with Russian intelligence. It's not at all clear whom they're spying for now. You may get the idea that there's a fair amount of ambiguity here.

All that ambiguity (and some other things) gives rise to a good deal of interesting atmosphere. But there's not much action in the book. People go here and there for a variety of reasons, but they're not usually in a rush and the climax isn't much of a climax. Themes of travel and location are regularly addressed, but it doesn't feel as though there's a unifying idea behind how they're addressed.

The book's tone is dispassionate, but the metaphors often jostle. For example:

    Past a delirious frozen surge of graffiti, a sort of
    street-fractal Hokusai wave, and under a lowering
    lip of coiled razor wire topping chain-link gates.
    (p. 100)

The book's ambiguity is handled with considerable authorial skill. Along with the jostling metaphors, it creates an atmosphere that's usually at least somewhat uneasy. (Which I suspect Mr Gibson intends as a commentary on recent times.)

And Mr Gibson evokes individual settings on top of that layer of uneasiness very deftly. That's a significant accomplishment in a book, but it's not enough to make me feel thrilled or amazed.

There's a tiny error in that the Selective Availability feature of GPS did not prevent civilians from determining their locations using it. It merely degraded the accuracy of the positions they received (p. 20).

Mr Gibson mentions so many brand names (Paul Stuart, Jos. A. Bank, Gulfstream, PowerBook, Cessna, iPod, Barneys, Town Car, etc) in the book that I begin to wonder whether he has started selling product placements in his novels. Probably it's just more atmosphere.

Posted: Wed - November 28, 2007 at 06:58 PM   Main   Category: